The Letter to the Church at Sardis, continued
Click on link to read the whole letter at once; I will cite them as I explain each.
When we are in danger, Christ urges us to take action before it’s too late vs 2
2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.
Wake up! — the word means literally, “be watchful.” This was especially meaningful to the church at Sardis since the town was captured in the 6th cent. B.C. because a soldier was seen by the enemy coming down a path, which was hidden from view, to retrieve his helmet which he had dropped from off the wall of the acropolis (pictured above as it looks down on the valley today; pictured below in etching from 1900s; WikiMedia commons; public domain).
We must be ever vigilant over our spiritual condition. Sardis couldn’t adopt Roman Empire dogma about the gods and the state and remain true to Christ. We can’t drift along with the current of our 21st Century culture, either. We cannot adopt Politically Correct dogma and hold to the Christian faith, too.
What remains means “to make stable.” A. T. Robertson says, “John was looking on the situation with delicate optimism as having passed the crisis.”
I have not not found your deeds complete — “Complete” describes a state in which completeness has not been achieved in the past and that state persists in the present time when John was writing. The “completeness” of works can be conceived of in one of two ways:
(1) quantity — “you do not have enough deeds to meet my expectations of you”
(2) quality — “your deeds are not of the right character to meet my expectations of you.”
Most likely it means the quality of works. No one can ever have enough works on his own to please God. I like what Bishop Handley Moule said about one’s performance as a Christian (I paraphrase.) We all desire to be holy, and we have aims; but we must also recognize we have limits; we end up with possibilities (see Moule below; emphasis mine).
As sinners saved by grace, we know we cannot perform perfect works even for God. We live with limited possibilities. Quality of works results from works done in the strength of the Holy Spirit according to our own gifts and calling. Judgment will be faithfulness according to opportunity.
Christ outlines the way back, so we can go forward vs. 3
3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.
Remember! means “keep constantly in mind.” It is not recollection of what accidentally slipped from memory. It is conscious effort to keep in mind!
What you have received describes their reception in the past of something which was still with them in the present when John was writing. What they had received was the Apostolic tradition.
Repent is metanaô meaning “to change one’s mind” about this matter. Note figure below on the distinction between repentance and conversion. One must experience a change of mind before having a change of direction. Both are wrought in us by God’s Spirit.
Come like a thief is not a reference to the Second Coming, but a statement that Christ’s judgment would come on them when they were least expecting it. Surely this is a pun on Sardis’ past invasion after seeing a soldier sneak down a secret path and retrieve his helmet.
Christ notices the faithful and rewards them in the end vs. 4-5
4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
Soiled clothes is also a pun on Sardis claim to be the first city to have discovered how to dye wool, “turkey red.” The garment trade was prosperous in Sardis. Those who wore soiled garments were removed from the public list of citizens. People with soiled garments were not permitted to approach the (pagan) gods in their temple.
Handkerchief or bandanna printed in Turkey Red, circa 1870–76. Made by Archibald Orr Ewing & Co., Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire. (Glasgow Museums)
According to Alan F. Johnson, soiled garments in Revelation are “a symbol of mingling with pagan life and thus defiling the purity of one’s relation to Christ.” Many in the Church of Sardis seem to have been concerned mostly with outward purity — of appearance — but to have neglected the inner purity necessary to have a relationship with Christ. Gordon Fee says “Sardis was living an illusion.” White is a symbol of purity and righteousness.
Christ will never blot his name out of the book of life. John uses the double negative (ou mê) to underline the statement — “I will by no means blot his name out… .” The background to this is the official registry list of citizens in Sardis. Criminals were blotted out from that registry.
Also, read Exodus 32:32-33 (click on link below to read these verses) Moses mentions God’s book, and this may be in John’s mind. This passage is intended to be an encouragement to those who are persevering, and should not be pressed to teach that a person can lose his salvation.
Sardis did not heed the warning. Below is an etching of the ruins of Sardis. The two columns were part of the pagan Temple of Cybele (the Great Mother) made circa 1885. They still stand today.
6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
vs. 6 for the meaning of this verse see the posts on the Ephesian letter.
Beale, G. K. (2015). Revelation: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids: MI Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.
ESV. English Standard Version retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Moule, H. C. G. (1888). Thoughts on Christian Sanctity. England, London: Seeley and Co. Accessed 27 July 2019 from https://archive.org/details/thoughtsonchrist00mouluoft/page/n6
Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol VI. Accessed February 9, 2019 from https://archive.org/
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